JOHNSON CITY, Texas - The park ranger at Lyndon B. Johnson's
boyhood home is herding our little group out of LBJ's bedroom and
on toward the "sleeping porch," but my son is lagging behind,
studying the period furnishings with more interest than you'd
expect they'd inspire in an 11-year-old.
"So, this is the window?" he asks, referencing a story the ranger
had just told - that young LBJ would sneak out of bed, climb out
the window and crawl under the house on evenings that his
legislator father had friends visiting in the parlor, so that he
could eavesdrop on their political wheeling and dealing. I nod, he
grins, and he hustles to catch up with our tour.
Only later did he explain what had struck him: He had never
thought about any president ever being a kid, much less a kid who
would break the rules. In that modest house, lacking touch screens
or animatronic exhibits, history had come to life.
Which was what I'd vaguely hoped for when planning this trip in
late November. My son's sixth-grade class had just spent a week
immersed in the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination but had
spent little time on the man who succeeded him - despite the fact
that LBJ was one of only two U.S. presidents born in Texas. (Bonus
points if you knew the other was Dwight Eisenhower, who, though
associated most closely with Kansas, was actually born in Denison.)
And LBJ wasn't just born in Texas - the lifelong Democrat grew up
here, campaigned here, even spent much of his presidency governing
here, from the ranch house in Stonewall dubbed the Texas White
House. Today, the most important sites in his life, plus his
presidential library and museum, are well-preserved and open to
visitors, all within a roughly 60-mile swath of Central Texas,
ready to be discovered by a new generation.
"I think that, now that the (JFK 50th anniversary) observances
have concluded, the eyes of historians will turn back to LBJ, and
we're starting to see an increase in interest in him," says Russ
Whitlock, superintendent at the Lyndon B. Johnson National
Historical Park in Johnson City. The park is commemorating his
presidency with a series of special exhibits over the next seven
years. "When people come here, see the boyhood home, go through the
exhibits, they often experience kind of this 'a-ha' moment - 'I had
no idea he did so much.'"
Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in 1908 in a farmhouse outside
Stonewall, Texas. He died Jan. 22, 1973, at just 64 years of age,
in his sprawling house just down the road from that cabin. In
between, even when he served in Washington for more than 30 years,
first in Congress and then the White House, Texas was always home.
The Johnsons deeded much of the ranch to the National Park
Service in 1972, shortly before his death, with the vision of
keeping it a working ranch that would be open to the public. Today,
the national park is split in two. The ranch in Stonewall,
connected to the state LBJ park, is one half, and the boyhood home
and visitor center, in Johnson City proper, is the other.
We start our tour in Johnson City, where the park ranger convenes
a group on the porch of the house where LBJ moved with his parents
at age 5. Though the politician liked to play up his humble roots,
we see immediately that by standards of the day, the Johnsons were
fairly well-off. The tidy frame house, a modified dogtrot style,
sits on a good-size city block in the middle of town. Our guide
explains that Johnson's parents paid $3,000 for the property in
1913, the equivalent of about $300,000 today.
It's decorated to look like it did during Johnson's childhood,
with some original furnishings and some belonging to Johnson family
members, so we can begin to envision the small-town Texas
upbringing that shaped Johnson's politics.
On the back porch, where Johnson slept alongside his siblings on
hot summer nights, his dad, Sam, sometimes cut hair to bring in
extra money when times were tight, our ranger explains. …